Should prisoners be freed to stop outbreaks behind bars?

Mike Bebernes
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

As the coronavirus outbreak has escalated in the United States, public health officials have repeated the same pieces of advice over and over to help curb the virus’s spread: Practice social distancing and wash hands frequently.

Those measures are all but impossible for the 2.3 million people inside America’s jails and prisons. Inmates are often packed into crowded cells and common areas. Soap can be hard to come by, and hand sanitizer is frequently banned because of its alcohol content. “Jails and prisons struggle to provide even basic health services,” a former prison health official said.

Health experts have begun sounding the alarm about the potential for devastating and fast-spreading coronavirus outbreaks inside prisons and jails. “A storm is coming,” the chief medical officer for New York City’s jails said. There’s concern that jails and prisons could be major spreaders for the virus as released prisoners, guards and visitors carry it into the larger community. A surge in sick inmates could also overwhelm nearby hospitals, especially in rural areas.

Cases of COVID-19 are already popping up in prisons and jails. More than 80 people in New York’s jail system have reportedly tested positive as of Tuesday. California’s prison system saw its first confirmed case on Sunday.

Why there’s debate

Health experts and prison reform advocates argue for drastic measures to be taken to prevent mass infection and death among incarcerated people. The simplest steps, they say, are to significantly increase personal hygiene resources, screen people coming in for symptoms, provide improved access to health care and set up plans to humanely isolate confirmed cases.

Improving conditions inside jails and prisons will help, but experts argue that the only way to prevent severe outbreaks is to dramatically reduce the number of people locked up in the first place. Doing that would mean lowering the number of new inmates through steps like limiting enforcement on low-level crimes and suspending pretrial detention for those who can’t afford bail. It could also mean releasing inmates. Some have called for anyone near the end of their sentence to be released early. Others say inmates over age 65 should be let out unless they pose a specific public safety risk. Officials in many parts of the country have begun enacting some of these steps. President Trump said his administration is considering releasing some prisoners in the federal prison system.

Prison reform activists say preventing tragedy behind bars also requires changing common thinking about jails and prisons. The idea that they’re closed systems isolated from the broader community is incorrect, they argue, and the basic humanity of incarcerated people needs to be recognized. These steps will not only save lives, they say, but will also help prevent deadly riots like the ones that have happened in Italy and Colombia.


The prison population needs to be reduced dramatically

“The coronavirus pandemic requires us to act in ways we never would have imagined to mitigate virus spread. We need to rapidly decrease the population in the city’s jails to slow the spread of the virus.” — Robert L. Cohen, New York Daily News

Limit the number of new inmates

“Virtually no defendant should be admitted to jail during this emergency who does not pose a risk to public safety. By definition that includes anyone with bail set, whether they can pay it or not, and anyone subject to jail for a technical parole or probation violation.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

Release inmates facing the greatest risk from the virus

“Emergency powers should also be applied to order early jail releases and bond adjustments. Especially vulnerable groups include the immunocompromised, pregnant people, older adults, and those with underlying conditions that the virus is known to compound. Failing to release them risks their lives.” — Chantá Parker, Amanda Alexander and Jonathan Sacks, Detroit Free Press

Police should reduce enforcement of low-level offenses

“It is also critical that jails take swift action to reduce the number of people in confinement. Local law enforcement can safely reduce these numbers in several ways: These include reclassifying misdemeanor and lower-level felony offenses that do not threaten public safety into non-jailable offenses, using citations instead of arrests for all low-level crime and indefinitely postponing all parole and probation office visits.” — Amanda Klonsky, New York Times

Suspend pretrial detention and bail

“Judges must immediately refuse to remand every possible new arrestee to correctional facilities — for everyone’s sake.” — Chandra Bozelko, NBC News

Step up prevention of other health issues to lighten the load on health care

“Standard public health interventions, like flu shots, are even more important during disease outbreaks — if fewer people get the flu, they can stay out of health care facilities and leave more resources available for those who really need it.” — Nicole Wetsman, The Verge

Significant steps need to be taken before it’s too late

“The goal, however, should be to release inmates before an outbreak gets bad. Once an outbreak begins, after all, releasing inmates could spread the disease outside, especially since coronavirus can spread even if someone doesn’t have symptoms.” — German Lopez, Vox

Establish humane ways to isolate sick inmates

“In facilities that are already at or over maximum capacity … large-scale quarantines are not feasible. Solitary confinement as a means of quarantine is a violation of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.” — Nancy Gertner and John Reinstein, Boston Globe

The public must recognize the humanity of incarcerated people

“People in prison or jail may have made bad decisions to wind up behind bars, but they’re still human beings worthy of God’s grace. As our country braces itself for the coronavirus, let’s make sure that those in the justice system are protected, too.” — Van Jones and Jessica Jackson, CNN

Officials need to be willing to make politically unpopular decisions

“Authorities should release those who do not pose an immediate danger to public safety, while also reducing arrests and delaying sentencings. These moves carry inherent political risks, but they are for the greater good of the public at large.” — Josiah Rich, Scott Allen and Mavis Nimoh, Washington Post

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